Double up food bucks and food policy with the Fair Food Network

July 12, 2010

Author: Corinna Borden

According to the Michigan Food Stamp Calculator, a single person earning $1,000 in Social Security income a month, with a $300 monthly rent payment, would be eligible for $66 in food stamp benefits that month.

Say this person lived in Detroit, without a car, and wanted to purchase food. According to Oran Hesterman, inaugural president and CEO of Fair Food Network, “60 percent of all food stamp benefits are redeemed in liquor stores, party stores, and gas station convenience stores. People are doing their grocery shopping at gas stations. Detroit is not unique, it is happening all over the country.”

When I taught in Washington, D.C., a student came to school one day with marshmallows and Cheetos for lunch. Think about the dietary repercussions of such “food” – day in day out. Think about the $70 billion a year of your tax money spent on food stamps where 60 percent of that contributes to our pandemic of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity – welcome to our health care.

Fair Food Network’s solution to this Gordian Knot is simple: encourage people to spend their food stamp benefits on local produce, chronicle the benefits and evidence scientifically, and change the policy in Washington, D.C.

Their Double Up Food Bucks program matches every food stamp dollar spent at a farmer’s market, up to $20 per visit.
Hesterman speaks broadly and with conviction about the program. “Instead of watching our $70 billion of food assistance going to support the highly processed food industry while keeping our low-income families and kids unhealthy: eating high fat, highly processed, high sugar food. We need to use that same resource in a way that gets healthier food to people while also supporting a local food economy.”

From planting the first heirloom apple trees in the organic farm at UC Santa Cruz 35 years ago, to granting millions of dollars over nearly 20 years as part of the Kellogg Foundation’s Sustainable Food Systems Program, Hesterman has either worked with, or given seed money to, many of the organizations involved in the local food movement. Hesterman feels his lifetime of work has enabled him, “to gain a perspective as to how this movement has been growing from very early on and has provided me with an incredible network of people and projects all of the country … and a lot of good connections in the philanthropic world.”

Those connections with philanthropic funding are pivotal because Fair Food Network is talking about a statewide Michigan program for Double Up Food Bucks, in order to help convince policy makers as to the feasibility of the project nationwide. Piloted last year in Detroit (under the name Michigan Mo’ Bucks), this fall he hopes to expand to Ann Arbor. “We are working on engaging radio, billboards, bus signs, direct mail to SNAP [food stamp] recipients,” Hesterman shares. When I spoke to him in June, they planned on ordering $300,000 worth of aluminum coins.

Headquartered in downtown Ann Arbor, Fair Food Network has a director of policy and communications working in Washington, D.C. toward effecting food policy. Reauthorization of the Farm Bill will happen sometime in 2012 or 2013 and food stamps are part of that behemoth of a bill (just looking at the outline of the 2008 enacted bill is dizzying). Hesterman hopes the Farm Bill reauthorization will, “include in it some form of incentive that is encouraging people to use their food stamp benefits to buy healthier food,” based on the evidence presented with the Double Up Food Bucks program.

In addition to his leadership of the Fair Food Network, Hesterman is working on a book. “The book chronicles the movement and introduces a lot of the good food heroes. Some of these are small scale – but some of it is big company, too. You don’t hear about it commonly, but some of the largest food companies in the country are doing some very interesting work right now creating more ecologically sound systems and insisting that farmers that they source from produce their food differently.” The final part of the book focuses on the, “ways you can plug into this and help this revolution.”

The working title of the book is “Good Food Revolution,” with the Double Up Food Bucks program as one front, I look forward to reading of more.